Monday, August 8, 2011

Night Nurse/Ladies They Talk About

This is Barbara Stan-week! All this week we'll celebrate the life and career of my favorite actress, Barbara Stanwyck, covering different eras of her long and distinguished journey through the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Night Nurse
Ladies They Talk About
seen @ Film Forum, New York, NY

It was probably Double Indemnity that did it for me. I'm not sure whether I first saw it in my film history class in college or while working at the old video store I worked at, but either way, it was likely that film that made me admire Barbara Stanwyck. My reaction to the movie was on a similar level to when I saw Sunset Boulevard for the first time (both Billy Wilder films; not a coincidence): I've never seen anything like this before. From the way she talked, the way she moved, the way she acted, I believed that Stanwyck was a woman that a man would kill for. 

Then I saw more of her movies, and I saw other sides to her; how she could be playful, virtuous, treacherous, elegant, and more. She wasn't a va-va-VOOM sex goddess like Marilyn or Rita, but she could easily evoke sensuality. She didn't challenge gender roles in the same manner as Katherine or Joan, but she was tough enough to stand up for what was hers, no matter which side of the tracks her characters came from. She made mediocre films good and good films better - and she'll forever be remembered as one of Hollywood's greatest leading ladies.

Night Nurse and Ladies They Talk About were two movies shown during the Film Forum's marvelous recent series on pre-Code Hollywood. (When I saw it, it was part of a triple bill which also included the William Powell film Lawyer Man, which was also good.) Stanwyck's career began in a time when movies, still in its infancy, were castigated by conservative organizations for their alleged immorality. In 1930, a production code was adopted that was designed to restrain what could and could not be shown in the movies, but it wasn't until 1934 that it was given teeth. One of the pivotal films that ultimately led to enforcement of the Code was Stanwyck's own Baby Face.

In Night Nurse, Stanwyck and Joan Blondell are nurses at a hospital, and Stanwyck discovers a plot by a delinquent mother to kill her daughters and collect on their trust funds. In Ladies They Talk About, Stanwyck, for her part in a series of robberies, goes to prison thanks to an old flame turned radio evangelist, who she still has a thing for. I liked Nurse better. It's got a mixture of drama and comedy, it's sexier (I think the sight of Stanwyck and Blondell in their slips must've been what offended the prudes back then), plus it's got an early appearance by a mustache-less Clark Gable as a bad guy! Ladies didn't quite live up to the promise of seeing Stanwyck in a women's prison movie - the prison wasn't anywhere near as rough as I thought it might be, and the ending seemed like a cop out.

I've found pre-Code films to be somewhat of a mixed bag. Some of them do live up to their reputation, but others have struck me as more pedestrian. Of course, I understand that social mores were very different back in the late 20s and early 30s, and I try to keep that in mind when I watch them, though it's not easy. One of the first movie books I ever bought was an anthology called Movie Censorship and American Culture, a group of essays detailing the history of the film industry's long battle against censorship. The Code period gets a great deal of discussion, naturally, so I'm familiar with the context of the time period in which films like Nurse and Ladies were part of. Given the pressures Hollywood was under to kowtow to conservative groups, perhaps the very fact that they were able to make the movies they did is significant of itself.

(Dig this: I just discovered that today marks the 80th anniversary of Night Nurse's release! I totally did not know this and did not plan for it. It's a complete coincidence.)

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